Rochester, N.Y.— Walk into John Vanden Brul’s room at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester and you’ll see a wall dedicated to pictures and newspaper clippings from his days as a sailor in the United States Navy.
He proudly speaks about his service and how he was stationed in Hawaii on December 7, 1941— the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Vanden Brul is now 93-years-old.
Two rooms down from him at St. Ann’s his identical twin brother, Al, also has pictures of himself in uniform. Al, too, was at Pearl Harbor 70 years ago.
“Pearl Harbor will never leave my memory,” says John. “I remember damn well. It's just one of those things that never leaves you.”
Al and John were both students at East High School in Rochester when they enlisted in the Navy Reserves. It wasn’t until 1941, when they were 23-years-old, they were call to active duty.
They were stationed on the USS Solace, a hospital ship at Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of the attacks, John says he was shaving to go to church. He looked out his porthole and saw a plane flying low. It was so close he remembers seeing the pilot’s goggles.
“I saw this plane come in and I thought it was a Hawaiian in it,” John says. “Then I saw the back of the plane and I saw a big bomb on it and that was the one that flew down the smoke stacks of the USS Arizona and blew it to hell.”
Al was close by and was also one of the first men to see the Japanese planes.
“I was the first one to see the planes coming,” Al recalls. “When I heard these planes coming from the right, I saw four planes coming and I recognized them as torpedo planes.”
From where Al and John were, there was little they could do. Their hospital ship had no weapons to help fight off the attack.
“We all jumped up from our desks and gathered at the fan tail at the stern of the ship,” says John. “We watched the bombing. We couldn't do anything else.”
Al says at first some people thought the bombings were just drills.
“This nurse came down behind me and said ‘Van, I didn't know they made these ships list like this during a practice raid.’ I told them ‘We're at war with Japan now and you better hurry up to your ward because we'll be getting patients by the hundreds before long.’”
Al was right.
John manned the incinerator below deck. He was in charge of burning hundreds of bloodied hospital bed sheets and body parts that came in.
“It was a little bit upsetting, but we didn't get worked up over it because the war had started,” John says. “We knew it had started. FDR said the next day that it would be a day that lives in infamy.”
In the days following the attacks, the brothers helped draw up rosters of the 1,177 men killed on the U.S.S Arizona and helped write letters informing families. They also took part in the clean up.
At the time, the Vanden Brul brothers didn’t know why their ship was spared from the torpedoes. A total of 2,403 people died in the attacks.
Al says it wasn’t until later he found out why, through something he learned on the History Channel. A documentary he watched had interviewed a Japanese pilot who had carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
“[The pilot] said the Japanese emperor requested that they didn’t sink any hospital ships or luxury liners between San Francisco and Hawaii,” Al says, “Otherwise I think we would have been the first casualties.”
Jason and Jenny Schuber of Rochester are John’s grandchildren. They grew up hearing their grandfather’s stories about the war and they’re glad John and Al are still able to share it with others.
“We got to hear all these stories and relive history that we weren't there to witness,” Jenny says. “We're lucky that they're still very sharp for their age and able to relay that story and share it with everyone else.”
The brothers say they like to tell their story so that people will never forget the events of that day and the men and women who lost their lives.
“It was a treacherous attack by the Japanese and it should be remembered forever,” says John. “Remember Pearl Harbor-- as FDR said, it will live in infamy.”
The Vanden Brul brothers served together on the same ship until 1943 when the Navy separated them. The move came after five brothers from an Iowa family were all killed in one attack aboard the USS Juneau in 1942.
The brothers were both honorably discharged from the Navy and moved back to Rochester. They both worked at Kodak until they retired in the eighties.
Although they both got married, raised children and built separate lives, they were always together.
“They've been always inseparable,” says Jason Schuber. “They are truly identical. They used to drive our grandmother nuts because they would talk to each other on the phone more than they would to their own wives.”
Even now at age 93 and living at nursing home, both are always together just like they were 70 years ago.
“Oh I think it's great we’re together,” John laughs. “I don't know if Al does, but I think it's great.”
But Al agrees. He’s glad he was side-by-side with his brother at Pearl Harbor and he’s grateful he’s here now.
“I’ve always said that we were born together and we’re going to die together.”